Thursday, June 07, 2007

We didn't Come here to Answer Cuntish Questions

The Situationists (or, as some would have it, 'Situationism') occupy a peculiar position in political and aesthetic theory today. Or rather they do as a total, unitary project: Debord and Debordism is now totally assimilated into a certain kind of discourse, given the obligatory citation in every post Hardt/Negri disquisition and inserted, with massive inappropriateness, into the moribund world of fine art. The Debord myth is rather pernicious, and is something he himself obviously cultivated - the strategist poring over Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, with murky dealings, a liking for fine claret, a glamorous suicide and an ambiguous autobiography. The SI as a whole seems to have declined in proportion to the rise of this myth. But then there's the other side, the necessary constructive (they would have said 'creative', but that word has ugly resonances nowadays) concomitant to the work of negation.

It's difficult to find, then, a book as wildly unfashionable as Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life, with its unashamed call for radical subjectivity, alongside today's Maoist ontologies. And whereas with Debord there is a rather mandarin tone, what with his recondite references to military strategy and renaissance intrigue, Vaneigem's book is rich with allusion and detail, whether historical or artistic - Brecht, Victor Serge, The Palais Ideal, The Watts Towers, all corraled into the Situationist Project of a life worth living. One might occasionally bristle at its Romanticism and semi-Vitalism, and like so much 60s leftist thought, it seemed to imagine the postwar settlement was permanent - the possibility of a return to laissez-faire is nowhere to be found - the future of capitalism is seen to be the New Deal, Khrushchevism or Swedish social democracy, and perhaps the SI would have been less scathing about them if they'd have known what they had been replaced with. Perhaps. Yet for all that I would still take the SI over everything ever to have come out of the Ecole Normale Superieure. The Revolution of Everyday Life (which I prefer to the French title, Treatise on Living for the Young Generations, in its evocation of the Constructivist interventions into byt or alltagsleben) is the major work of Situationist Practice, and it reminds constantly of the reason for poverty of art for the last 30 years: its divorce from the everyday.

This is why there's something Situationist in the hardcore continuum - one of the glimpses of possibility that are alluded to by Vaneigem where the democratisation of technology and mass participation are able to create something far more advanced than the autonomous artist can muster. Similarly this is the extension of the art-into-life campaigns of Constructivism, this time stripped of substitutionism. This couldn't be more hostile to the current state of art, which remains utterly contemplative, still stuck in the gallery. Grime (at least when it was at its height) was more Situationist than Hal Foster, artists collectives or university screenings of Debord's films. For all its mystifications and brutalities its proletarian futurism and its sheer everyday mundanity was almost exactly what they had in mind: even its occasional thuggishness reminded of the SI's talent for invective (as in their riposte to the ICA which serves as our title). The SI, like Alexei Gan, declared 'long live the construction of everyday life', and in that the Watts riots and the Watts towers were part of the same thing - and couldn't be further from the panegyrics, eulogies and laments that make up so much of current Leftist thought. The question is, though: what are the instances today of the Construction of everyday life?


Blogger Jim T said...

Why the rejection of Maoist ontologies?

Why valorize radical subjectivity and opt for a temporary fix, ultimately relying on interstices within the capitalist state?

6:45 pm  
Blogger Charles Frith said...

Interesting perspective on the future of capitalism. I reckon things could be quite radical once Florida goes under!

8:45 pm  
Blogger dave said...

Vaneigem isn't prone to assimilation by the academy because his is a theory of action rather than a critique. Praxis isn't on the agenda for worlds that exist only to discuss and contemplate (art, academia, politics, the media, etc., etc.). That's why his remains the most vital, radical work of the SI legacy. It stands in opposition to the world of hollow thought.

9:49 pm  
Anonymous Ben said...

1. There is a link between your post on reenactment and on Vanegeim /the SI which is the 'constructive' negation of Debord's film work in the 70s, especially his use of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) as the image of the SI: "Avant-gardes have only one time; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without outliving it" (Debord).
2. On the recuperation of the SI I would be reluctant to draw such a fixed distinction between Debord and Vangeim. Surely Vangeim's "semi-vitalism" is one of the effects that allowed his work to be recuperated (and neutered) by a "vitalist" capital?
3. Debord's best insult is this one from the excellent article by TJ Clark and D Nicholson-Smith:
One of us remembers him at the College de France in 1966, sitting in on Hippolite's course on Hegel's Logic, and having to endure a final session at which the master invited two young Turks to give papers. "Trois etapes de la degenerescence de la culture bourgeois francais" [three stages of the degeneration of French bourgeois culture], said Debord as the last speaker sat down. "Premierement, l'erudition classique" [at first, classical erudition] -- he had in mind Hippolite himself, who had spoken briefly at the start of things -- "quand meme base sur une certaine connaissance generale. Ensuite le petit con stalinien, avec ses mots de passe, 'Travail,' 'Force' et 'Terreur.' Et enfin -- derniere bassesse -- le semiologue" [even if based on a certain general knowledge. Then comes the little Stalinist cunt, with his words from the past, 'Work,' 'Strength,' and 'Terror.' And finally -- the last degradation -- the semiologist].

11:15 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Aha, I was hoping for a post from you, Mr Noys! The jibe about 'Maoist ontology' was with you in mind. Good points all (also: on the invective question, the full page of Internationale Situationniste declaring 'MR GEORGE LAPASSADE IS A CUNT')

I think Dave is essentially right about why Vaneigem is currently neglected, but the case was probably the reverse 60s-70s: practically all the slogans which find their way into both May 68 and punk are Vaneigem's, for better or worse.

11:25 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Incidentally - why is the construction of situations a 'temporary fix' within capitalism (clearly offering no insights whatsoever into what a post-capitalist life could be like) and the construction of state capitalism somehow resistant? Just out of curiosity.

11:27 am  
Anonymous Ben said...

I could probably talk about this all day to the horror of all.
1. I think the films offer one line on construction qua negation - not least because they answer the stupid performative critique that runs "you critique all representation, but that's another representation, Ha Ha!", evil cackle, pro-situ skulks off 'suitably' chastened. Even Jean-Luc Nancy gets rather twisted up in this kind of thing (in Being Singular Plural).
2. Vanegeim's work is excellent, not least for its critique of Leninism (wasn't going to let you get away without getting that in). While the 'poetic' style is not entirely to my taste his slogans are great. For the situs, as I understand, recuperation was a political strategy of capital not a metaphysical necessity - hence the emphasis on disappearance, time, and the critique of the vanguard.
3. As for the construction of situations these need to be evaluated I think (as you do with reenactments) as well as tried out in practice. As TJC and DNS point out both critics and admirers of the SI can get stuck on the 'burning with the pure flame of negativity thesis' as they put it. Their article contains some fascinating discussion from within the SI on organisation.

1:18 pm  
Blogger Jim T said...

As far as I'm aware, neither grime or the Watts towers, their liberatory and utopian symbolism notwithstanding, have significantly improved the living conditions of the communities in which they were produced. Such artistic praxis (with its positive approopriation of waste and resistance to the reification of urban life) should undoubtedly be incorporated into a post-capitalist society, but isn't exactly collective control of the means of production, doesn't, to my mind, suggest real possibilities for post-capitalist agricultural, industrial, technological, military production. But one can't sidestep the difficult issues that the USSR and the PRC faced and often failed to resolve through the construction of situations...

I haven't read Vanegeim's book, and should do so. But I've read miscellaneous situationist texts, seen some of Debord's films, and wonder how the SI is much different from say, Hakim Bey?

5:59 pm  
Blogger paddington said...

Couple of things.

First, there is trend in radical political thought of "building" situations, or "moving towards" the utopian society. Theories are to be realised in the future, and there is thus a lack of emphasis on the "here and now". The point is not so much, therefore, whether the Watts Riots (or, much earlier, the Paris Commune) changed things forever, but whether they created a revolutionary situation at the time. That both ruptures from the status quo were eventually subsumed under the capitalist order does not inherently mean they were failures.

Marx wrote that "the most important social measure of the Commune was its own existence in activity," a statement which the SI echoed in their "Theses".

Secondly, and on a different tack, has anybody actually done the derive (sorry to make it sound like a dance, though maybe that's not such a bad description!)? It seems designed to shake us out of our alienated routine, to be the catalyst for spontaneous social activity, but I have always found it more revelatory when done solo. Maybe I'm just an reconstructable miserable git though...

12:51 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

As far as I'm aware, neither grime or the Watts towers, their liberatory and utopian symbolism notwithstanding, have significantly improved the living conditions of the communities in which they were produced.

Ouch. Well yes this is obviously true, and hits on something in the SI which I do find a little dubious: eg in Vaneigem we finish with the suggestion that a tiny group like the SI could effect change through its own smallness and ideological purity. My own view on this (sorry Ben!) would be a fusion of the SI and other such 'infantile leftism' with Leninism. Ben was totally right in his paper at Roehampton that the problem with the current ontological Leninism is that it wholly ignores the leftist critique of Leninism - but I would rather have the two fused, a sort of Luxemburgist, or Sergeist position, a Libertarian Leninism, if you will.

Difference between the SI and the er, TAZ: well, the SI weren't hippies, or anarchists, and had no delusions that isolated acts of creativity in themselves could effect revolutionary change.

12:52 pm  
Blogger sevensixfive said...

Great piece, especially interested in Vaneigem and hardcore as edge cases, too spiky to get swallowed and ingested into culture or academe as they're currently constructed.

Love that Simon Reynold's bit, too.

3:52 pm  
Blogger dave said...

May 68 and punk are linked in that they are at least interested in action (as actuality, or as pose). That interest is hard to find, nowadays, even amongst radical intellectuals, who achieve status through thought that limits itself to thought. In the cultural critique industry, invoking actual cultural change amounts to self-destruction.

5:43 am  
Anonymous Ben said...

1. No doubt it is possible to assimilate Lenin/lib communism along certain lines. I'd just say, which links to the comment about the organisation of production in the USSR/PRC, that the situs (and many others) saw Leninism as the problem for its refusal of the autonomous organisation of the working class. I'm concerned, as you know, that 'organization' becomes a kind of catch-phrase more expressive of a desire (for working class action) that an actual politics and that it's deployed in a lazy contrast that ignores non-Leninist, non-party, modes of proletarian 'organisation' that have actually taken place.
2. It's particularly annoying, to me, to see post-Marxists/post-Maoists repeat unreconstructed Leninist canards concerning anarchist/left-communist thought/practice when they submit so much else to in Marxism to criticism.
3. Also although councilism wasn't really given much concrete form in their (the SIs) work it did suggest an alternative mode of social organisation.
4. The SI did have an effect in a number of situations of course, most obviously May 68.
5. On 'ideological purity'. I'm not defending the SI as such but if you look at the debates around exclusions in 'The Real Split' at least they tried to formulate a proletarian theory as the theory of the proletariat. Often the exclusions concerned lack of work, and lack of analysis by members(and they were prescient about the future paths of the excluded). Marx himself often remarked on standing alone, if needs be, rather than concede to what he regarded as false modes or working class theory (Lasallism etc.)

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